Owner Dan Snyder defends Redskins name in emotional plea

Washington owner cites heritage in letter on keeping the nickname that critics say is racist

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 9:00pm

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder says respect goes both ways when it comes to the debate over their nickname.

The man who ultimately decides whether the name stays or goes offered his thoughts on the matter in a letter to season-ticket holders, the first time he has addressed at length the change-the-name campaign that has picked up momentum this year.

The letter's tone suggests that no change is being considered.

The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honour
Dan Snyder

"I've listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name," it states.

"But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans, too."

The letter recalls Snyder's experience at his first Redskins game at the age of six, and cites polls and anecdotal evidence indicating support for the name from Native Americans. It said the original Boston Redskins had a Native American coach in the 1930s before they relocated to Washington, even though research shows it is unclear whether William "Lone Star" Dietz was an Indian or whether he stole the identity of a missing man from the Oglala Sioux tribe.

"The name was never a label," Snyder's letter states. "It was, and continues to be, a badge of honour."

Although groups have been calling for a name change for decades, a series of events this year put the Redskins on the defensive like never before.

Snyder has hired Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House adviser who specialises in managing political crises. The letter shows more sensitivity than the owner's last on-the-record comment, when he told USA Today in May: "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER - you can use caps."

In recent months, leaders in Washington and some members of Congress have called for a name change, and some media outlets have stopped using the name. It is also the subject of a long-running legal challenge from a group of American Indians seeking to void the team's federal trademark protection.

Indian activist Suzan Shown Harjo, a major figure in the trademark case before the US Patent and Trademark Office, was unimpressed with Snyder's letter. She disputed several points, including the reference to Dietz, whom she said was part of the team's "time-dishonoured history of putting up pseudo-Indians as part of their promotion".

Harjo also rebuffed Snyder's assertion that the team has an obligation to fans to preserve this heritage. "Part of that heritage and tradition is name-calling, belittling and maligning native peoples," Harjo said. "The n-word was traditional and had quite a heritage, too. Happily, not all traditions are carried on forever."

Last week, US President Barack Obama said he would "think about changing" the name if he owned the team.

This week, the NFL said it would meet representatives from the Oneida Indian Nation, which has been airing radio commercials pushing for a change.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said the NFL had to "carefully listen" to critics and "make sure we're doing what's right".

Like Harjo, Oneida representative Ray Halbritter differed with the interpretation of the team's history in Snyder's letter. Oneida said the nickname "was deliberately designed to denigrate people of colour".

"Unfortunately, that ploy was successful," he said. "The marketing of this racial slur has had - and continues to have - very serious cultural, political, and public health consequences for my people and Native Americans everywhere. It is clear from Mr Snyder's letter that he does not understand those consequences."

Halbritter invited Snyder to take part in the tribe's upcoming meeting with the NFL.

Washington coach Mike Shanahan said he was glad that Snyder "expressed exactly how he feels from an ownership standpoint".

Goodell said it was ultimately Snyder's call as to whether the name would be changed. For now, it appears he is not budging.

"I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn," the letter states. "But we cannot ignore our 81-year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country. After 81 years, the team name 'Redskins' continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come."